Running with Grief
I’ve never been a natural runner. My technique has always been all wrong. I’d start off too confident, burn out by the end of my street, and crumple into a heap of stitches, nausea and humiliation. I’d almost be grateful for shin splints because it gave me a legitimate reason to throw in the towel. I’ve never found it particularly enjoyable. It’s far too difficult. It’s boring. It’s lonely. I’m quite a sociable person and have always looked at joggers with a certain amount of disdain. I would shun running in favour of team sports such as netball, or paid classes like yoga or Pilates. I find with these activities that there is much more of an incentive to go. You’ve paid; you don’t want to let your team down. With running, you can make all the excuses you like. The only person you let down is your future self, I suppose.
After having kids, I was kind of forced into running. I found myself annoyed that I couldn’t fit into my pre-pregnancy clothes and as maternity leave brought with it a significantly reduced income, I couldn’t buy a whole new wardrobe, or pay for a costly gym membership. So, in 2018, when my youngest baby was coming up to 11 months old, I joined a Couch to 5K group run by the local Leeds Girls Can contingent (who are, by the way, all kinds of inspirational. The run leaders, Kerry, Chloe, Cassy and Sarah, give up their own time to volunteer to run these 9-week courses at least twice a year).
The group organises two out of the three recommended weekly runs, with the third run to be completed in your own time. Now, I have to confess that I never did the third run (I seriously lack the motivation gene), but despite this, I found I could keep up with the programme and was actually improving. The fact that there was a set place and time twice a week and a group of people expecting me to turn up, was enough motivation to at least make the effort. I am not sure I would have persisted on my own. That’s a lie. I definitely would not have persisted on my own. The group is so welcoming: Nobody is made to feel that they can’t do it; nobody is left behind.
Anyway, I did it. I completed the course and got up to running 5K without stopping – which I seriously never thought I would be able to do. No stitches, no collapsing, no nausea and I even dreaded the previously longed-for shin splints! My triumph came right before Christmas – the perfect time to make excuses – but, such was the strength of my conversion that I continued with my running, attended a local running club, and vowed to carry on in January.
January came and I returned to work after maternity leave. On the day that I went back to work my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. It isn’t possible to even write those words without being transported back to that night, sitting alone in my car in the dark and rain outside the doctor’s surgery (after my own appointment about recurrent headaches), listening to my dad – on the phone – apologising to me for giving me such bad news and saying that he didn’t want to go out like that, but that I had to be strong and look after the kids.
I suppose I have lived a fairly privileged life. Nothing particularly bad has ever happened to me; I’ve been lucky. So, this came as a sudden, completely unexpected and utterly devastating hammer blow to the head. My dad was a healthy man. Up until only weeks before this diagnosis, he was going to the gym three times a week, spending hours on the tread mill. He was fit and healthy. Fitter than I was. How could this happen? Turns out although pancreatic cancer is a particularly aggressive form of the disease, early symptoms can be vague and misdiagnosed for something much more benign. As a result, most people are diagnosed when it is already too late to have any effective treatment; in fact, pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of all cancers with only 5% of those diagnosed surviving beyond 5 years. It also attracts less than 2% of research funding despite being the fifth most common cause of cancer death in the UK.
The months that followed were a whirlwind of hospital appointments, hours on the phone chasing appointments and results, hours on the motorway travelling between my parents’ house and my home in Leeds, time off work, hospital stays for Dad, visits to A&E. Then, later on, there were discussions with palliative care nurses, Hospice at Home arrangements, supporting my mum to ensure my dad could come home, visits with the kids, holding Dad’s hand as he slept, anxious phone calls to out-of-hours when my dad couldn’t take the pain, chats with amazing hospice staff, comforting words from Dad’s dedicated carers, cross words with one not-so-dedicated carer who spoke about my dad as if he were already dead. I didn’t have time for running. It was the last thing on my mind. I was barely surviving.
The Worst Thing
Dad died on a Monday. I held his hand as he breathed his last breath. I watched the pulse at the base of his neck slow to a stop. As he died, he let go of my hand. It is of some comfort that my mum, my sister and I were all with him at the end, but watching someone you love die is honestly the most brutal, heart-breaking, soul-destroying thing. As I sat there, in the moments after he died, I thought to myself that I would never feel normal again, never want to eat again, never enjoy anything ever again.
Almost as soon as that thought had finished, I was overcome by an overwhelming hunger, so I went and made us pasta and we all sat with Dad and ate it, which now seems the most ridiculous thing. Death is such a huge concept to get your head around. How can they be there one minute and gone the next? How can a fit and healthy man get cancer and deteriorate so rapidly? How can it be that my youngest child won’t remember what a devoted granddad he was? How can I be in the kitchen cooking while my dad lies dead in the living room? The cliché is that ‘life goes on’. It doesn’t really. Not in the same way, but your basic needs go on. You still need to eat, sleep and, as it turns out, I, personally, need to run. Who knew?
Finding a Way Through
I always did an inner eye-roll when I read articles or listened to features on the news about mental health and how exercise can help. Really? Going for a run will solve all of my problems will it? Well, no, but it does a pretty good job of tricking your body into thinking it has.
I went for a run the day after my dad died. As I ran, I listened to a podcast called the Griefcast which is hosted by comedian Cariad Lloyd whose dad also died of pancreatic cancer (incidentally, this podcast has been such a huge help to me, as has the brilliant Dr Kathryn Mannix and her book With the End in Mind. Kathryn herself actually replied to my rather panicked emails when my dad was in his final days. I shall be forever grateful). As I listened, one of her guests was explaining the science behind exercise and why it can help with your mental health. At times of intense emotional distress, the body will go into a fight-or-flight response and the adrenal glands will secrete hormones to help us deal with a perceived threat. The thinking is that when you exercise, your body thinks you have fled the threat (stress, grief, depression or whatever else it might be), and releases mood enhancing endorphins. This makes sense to me. Back when we were cave people, we might flee the lion chasing us and subsequently feel better. When the grief chases me, I run, I feel better. I’m not saying that running cures grief; for me, it helps me to work through it. I don’t believe you’re ever done with grief. It doesn’t go away. As Cariad Lloyd says in her podcast: when someone dies, it leaves a hole in your life. The hole doesn’t ever get any smaller, but your life grows around it, with time. When I get physical symptoms associated with anxiety brought on by grief, running helps me.
It’s not yet a year since my dad died. I have recently got over a nasty cough (not COVID – I was tested!) and what with one thing and another, have gone back to square one with the C25K. It’s not such a daunting task. I am no longer on my own as I would have been in 2018; I am no longer doubting my ability – I have reached the hallowed ground of 5K once before; I am no longer running to shrink myself into my pre-baby wardrobe; I now have a different motivator.
My grief will be there forever, probably, and I’m not saying that exercise alone will cure anybody’s struggle with their mental health and I’m not running to try and shrink my grief or suppress it. It’s more complicated than that, and people might need additional help – in my case, it’s CBT – but running definitely helps. I never thought I’d say that, (me, a runner?!) but here we are. C25K, run by Leeds Girls Can, has not only showed me that I can be a runner, it has put me in touch with a network of fantastically supportive women who I will run with again once we are allowed to resume our social runs. I’m looking forward to that day.